Skull fragment discovered in the North Sea is the oldest human bone discovered underwater
Scientists, including a member of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, have identified a fragment of Neanderthal skull in sediments extracted from the bottom of the North Sea, according to research announced today. The skull fragment, which belonged to a young adult male, was found among animal remains and artefacts dredged up 15 kilometres off the coast of the Netherlands. The animal fossils date from the late Pleistocene (130,000–12,000 yrs ago) and the artefacts include flakes and small handaxes, like those associated with Neanderthals from about 60,000 years ago.
Natural History Museum palaeontologist, Dr Chris Stringer, explains, ‘This is a very significant discovery because the skull fragment represents the first ancient human found below the sea. The North Sea is one of the world’s richest areas for mammal fossils because of its relatively shallow southern region, much of which is less than 50 metres deep. Woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, reindeer and other Pleistocene mammal fossils are brought ashore every year by the fishing industry and other dredging operations, and some fishermen now concentrate on collecting fossils rather than fish. Who knows what else we may find.’
During late Pleistocene cold stages, sea levels fell as much as 100 metres, exposing areas of land that are now submerged under the North Sea. These areas were inhabited by ice age mammals such as horse, reindeer, woolly rhino and mammoth. The finds demonstrate early humans were there, too. Thousands of fossils and hundreds of artefacts have been collected by fishermen and dredgers over the last two centuries, and the Natural History Museum alone has over 100 mammoth remains from Doggerland, as the now-submerged region has become known. About 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals were crossing this region to reach Britain, where their artefacts are associated with mammoth fossils at the site of Lynford in Norfolk. And now, for the first time, fossil evidence of these Neanderthals is available.
Professor Stringer explains, ‘For most of the last half-a-million years, sea levels were significantly lower than today, and at times, substantial areas of the current North Sea were dry land. There were extensive river systems with wide river valleys, lakes and floodplains and these areas were rich habitats for large herds of herbivores and the animals that preyed on them, including early humans. Isotope analyses of this North Sea Neanderthal match other specimens in suggesting a diet dominated by meat.’